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Utilities and Climate Scientists Team Up to Prepare for Bleak Water Future

Alliance is helping U.S. water utilities integrate climate models into long-term planning to better adapt their operations to global warming

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Aug 19, 2011
San Francisco's Oceanside wastewater treatment plant

Ten of the nation's largest water utilities have teamed up to connect climate scientists and water providers so utilities will have the information they need to prepare for the harmful effects of global warming.

Climate change will create a host of challenges that affect water supply, water quality, stormwater drainage and flood control. Utilities on the coast may need to prepare for rising sea levels. Utilities in the Southwest could face more intense droughts.

But there's a gap between most climate research and the kind of information that utilities need. Current climate models tend to work best with long-term trends and over large geographic areas. Water utilities, on the other hand, need specific information about how their water supplies and local rainfall patterns will be disrupted before they risk investing their customers' money in new infrastructure.

"It's inherently difficult for water utilities to make heads or tails of how they're going to be affected by climate change," said , a scientist at the . "When you zoom in on a particular locality, the scale of global models isn't able to tell you exactly what's going to happen."

To fill this gap, David Behar, who directs the climate program at the , helped found the (WUCA) in 2007.

"It really is a Wild West out there," Behar said, referring to the lack of guidance on how to make high-level science useful on a regional scale. The local data that are currently available are often scattered or hard to understand, he told SolveClimate News, leaving water utilities without a clear approach for evaluating local climate vulnerabilities.

Canada Moves Ahead with New Coal-Fired Power Rules

Environment Minister Peter Kent said new regulations will force coal developers to reduce emissions to levels that are comparable to gas-fired plants

By Reuters

Aug 19, 2011
Lambton coal-fired generating station in Ontario, Canada

CALGARY, Alberta—Canada moved ahead on Friday with new regulations for cutting emissions from coal-fired power plants as environmental groups decried one project that they said won a speedy approval just in time to avoid the tighter rules.

Climate Scientist Sees No Choice but to Risk Arrest at Keystone XL Protests

Jason Box, known for his study of glaciers, says oil sands mining is a moral issue that he feels compelled to address. The two-week sit-in begins Saturday

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 18, 2011

WASHINGTON—His climatology career at Ohio State University is advancing swimmingly. He's never had a brush with the law. And his wife is eight months pregnant with their first child.

So staying home for the next several weeks in Columbus, Ohio, rather than risking arrest in the nation's capital certainly seems the ideal choice for .

But the 38-year-old has never reveled in the idea of an intellectual or physical comfort zone.

His natural inquisitiveness — plus a dose of idealism and commitment — is why Box is intent on participating in his first-ever act of civil disobedience. The cause? Trying to convince President Obama that approving the extension of a controversial oil sands pipeline — the proposed $7 billion, 1,702-mile Keystone XL — would be the equivalent of lighting a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.

It's not a single-handed effort on Box's part. But as of mid-week he's evidently the only climate scientist who has registered to join about 2,000 other like-minded thinkers to line the fences surrounding the White House — where peaceful arrests are not uncommon for protesters of all stripes.

They'll begin gathering Saturday and rotate through in waves of 75 to 100 daily through Sept. 3. Box is booked for a three-day stint at the tail end. 

"I couldn't maintain my self-respect if I didn't go," Box said Tuesday in a telephone interview about his decision to wade into the murky territory of activism where most scientists fear to tread. "This isn't about me, this is about the future. Just voting doesn't seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also, because this is a democracy after all, isn't it?"

Texas Heat Spurs Surge in Sales of Energy-Efficiency Upgrades

Efficiency firms in Austin in particular say they're experiencing a boom in business as residents try to keep cool for less electricity and money

By Maria Gallucci, SolveClimate News

Aug 17, 2011
City of Austin Power Plant

As heat-swamped Texans crank up the A.C. to fend off triple-digit temperatures, many more residents are turning to energy-efficiency firms to help them rein in soaring electricity bills and reduce their use of the state's nearly maxed-out power supply.

For residents of Austin, a citywide habit of energy conservation means plenty of companies are already there to meet the demand.

Scientists Suggest End of Arctic Sea Ice in 2060, after Possible Brief Expansion

Study author says she is concerned that climate skeptics will seize upon some of the new findings as evidence against human-made warming

By Katherine Bagley, SolveClimate News

Aug 16, 2011

Includes corrections

Arctic sea ice could disappear completely by 2060 in the summer months due to accelerated warming from both a buildup of human-caused greenhouse gases and the planet's natural greenhouse effect, a group of scientists from the concluded in a new study.

However, the researchers said they still can't predict with certainty whether sea ice will retreat or expand during the next decade.

That finding keeps alive a scientific puzzle that has persisted for years, with implications that reach beyond academic circles.

Getting the question resolved is of mounting interest for businesses and countries, who are eager to tap economic opportunities of the melting Arctic as it opens the region to commercial shipping and oil exploration. By contrast, some climate skeptics opposing greenhouse gas regulation policies in Congress and other governments have an interest in bolstering the scientific uncertainty. 

In an interview with SolveClimate News, Jen Kay, NCAR climate scientist and lead author of the research, said the study shows that predicting what will happen to Arctic sea ice from now until 2020 is tricky, because of the unpredictable effects that winds, clouds and temperature changes have on patterns of atmospheric circulation. These natural fluctuations are too volatile to be trusted when incorporated into climate models, she said.

However, "according to our research greenhouse gases are definitely affecting the ice," Kay said, cognizant of how the study's ambiguity on the politically charged issue may be interpreted.

Detroit Suburbs Become Unlikely Site for Geothermal Drilling Projects

Despite being in one of the country's worst regions for geothermal power, two Michigan cities are finding ways to tap heat stored far below earth's surface

By Jeff Kart, Midwest Energy News

Aug 16, 2011

Despite being in one of the worst regions in the country for geothermal power, two Michigan cities are nevertheless finding ways to save on energy costs by tapping the earth's natural heat.

In the Detroit suburbs of Wyandotte and Dearborn Heights, local officials are using federal grants and city funds to help reduce the upfront cost for residents to convert to geothermal heating and cooling.

Geothermal systems can cost several times more to install than traditional central air conditioning or natural gas furnaces, but the additional costs are paid back through utility savings in five to 10 years, .

Geothermal energy works by digging wells to a spot in the earth where there’s a relatively constant core temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Water or an antifreeze solution is circulated to the spot through . During the winter, the fluid collects heat from the earth and carries it through the system and into the building. During the summer, the system is reversed, and the building is cooled by pulling heat back into the ground.

The systems work by using , which take the place of a furnace or air-conditioning unit and use less electricity.

 A Shared Resource

, Ron Amen is spearheading a project to convert the city's 33,000-square-foot senior center to geothermal heating and cooling. In a large grassy area next to the center, crews would drill wells to service the building and up to 400 neighborhood homes, said Amen, the city’s director of community and economic development.

Can Energy-Efficient Windows Revive U.S. Glass Manufacturing?

Ramped-up manufacturing of 'dynamic' glass technologies could bring domestic jobs back to a long-suffering industry

By Maria Gallucci, SolveClimate News

Aug 15, 2011
SAGE Electrochromics, Inc

Glassmaking in America has been in decline for at least a decade as manufacturers have moved production to China and other emerging economies. But can the green-buildings movement spark a revival?

Makers of a new class of energy-efficient "dynamic" windows are establishing factories in the United States. Helping to drive this growth spurt is a new generation of U.S. architects and builders, who are looking beyond solar panels, light-colored roofs and other staple sustainability solutions to meet the growing demand for green housing and commercial buildings.

Rao Mulpuri, CEO of "smart" glass company Soladigm, said the nation's glassworkers and suppliers are eager for a homegrown product that can give the industry a competitive edge over foreign manufacturers of low-cost traditional windows.

"The industry needs a product like this," he said.

Mulpuri's startup in Milpitas, Calif., makes dynamic window systems that can be programmed to tint glass on demand to reduce solar glare, substantially cutting buildings' lighting, heating and air-conditioning costs.

With funds from Khosla Ventures and GE Energy, the company is turning its California pilot factory into a $130 million facility in Olive Branch, Miss., near Memphis. The new plant will employ 330 people and could start selling and shipping Soladigm glass in early 2012.

Earlier this month, Soladigm's glass came out unscathed after a rigorous durability test by the Department of Energy's (NREL). The lab used a supercomputer to create a simulation of how the windows would perform and appear after several decades of real-world use.

Soladigm and are the only two dynamic glass companies to have met the durability standard, a validation that gives confidence to U.S. builders who are considering hefty upfront investments in the glass as they seek coveted green certification.

The firms are part of a still-small $5 million global dynamic glass market that is projected to reach $418 million by 2020 on rising demand for green buildings, according to an by Boston-based .

In Congress, Corn Ethanol Subsidies Lose More Ground Amid Debt Turmoil

The challenge of finding $1.3 trillion in budget cuts has forced Congress to re-examine 30 years of federal subsidies for corn ethanol

By Suzanne Goldenberg,

Aug 15, 2011
A cornfield in Illinois

There were times when Arlyn Schipper could almost feel heroic on his family farm in the heart of America's corn belt.

His 4,000 acres, planted almost entirely with corn, were helping to feed a nation — or at least help put fuel in its gas tanks, as his crop was processed into corn ethanol.

Schipper still sees it that way. It's just that he feels the country has moved on, or as he put it: "The country has turned on us."

America's debt crisis, and the challenge of finding $1.3 trillion in budget cuts, has forced Congress to re-examine 30 years of government subsidies for corn ethanol.

Meanwhile, drought and famine in the Horn of Africa have exposed a new negative consequence of biofuel production: the global food crisis. By competing with food crops for land, large-scale biofuel production has constricted supply and so boosted food prices globally. This has led to a backlash against biofuels such as corn ethanol from environmentalists and development charities.

"Ten years ago this was the greatest thing since apple pie – ethanol. A lot of farmers invested in this, and a lot of farmers invested in ethanol plants. Everybody wanted it. Our country wanted it. It was a renewable resource," said Schipper. "And now that we have got all of this money tied up in this, it's kind of turned on us."

Many will feel that corn farmers have had it pretty good. And the ethanol industry still has a mighty hold on America's corn belt. The country is projected to produce 14 billion U.S. gallons of corn ethanol this year at 200 refineries spread across the Midwest.

Oil Spills Inspire Bipartisan Surprise on Federal Pipeline Safety Reforms

Three bills moving through Congress would significantly strengthen federal oversight for pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Aug 12, 2011
Silvertip Oil Spill

WASHINGTON—A series of headline-grabbing ruptures along the nation's 2.5 million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines is prompting a rare attempt at bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans seem equally intent on significantly beefing up the pipeline safety standards that might have prevented some of these spills.

The timing of the legislation they're considering is especially vital because the State Department is in the midst of deciding whether a Canadian company should be allowed to expand its U.S. presence by building a $7 billion pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer and other fragile landscapes in the nation's heartland.

TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline would pump millions of gallons of diluted bitumen —a particularly dirty grade of heavy crude — 1,702 miles from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Three bills — two Democratic measures in the Senate and one cross-party initiative in the House — are now circulating. All of them would give federal regulators a bigger hammer to prevent pipeline leaks and accidents. Provisions include studying how diluted bitumen affects a pipeline's structural integrity, improving leak detection technology, increasing inspections, requiring steeper penalties for violations and mandating advances such as automatic shutoff valves and excess flow valves.

One unusual development is that industry groups and environmental and public interest advocates seem heartened by what they are hearing and seeing on the legislative front. The , a Bellingham, Wash.-based nonprofit whose sole mission is promoting fuel transportation safety, is also satisfied with where Congress is headed.

The Trust's executive director, Carl Weimer, and others from his organization have spent hours testifying before congressional committees.

"Before the rash of pipeline tragedies in the last 15 months, we'd be happy to have three of the 12 items on our laundry list in a bill," Weimer told SolveClimate News. "But this time around we've got most everything on our list in these bills.

Keystone XL Primer: How the Pipeline's Route Could Impact the Ogallala Aquifer

In the debate over TransCanada's controversial Cananda-to-Texas oil pipe, the Ogallala aquifer and the Nebraska sandhills have emerged as flashpoints

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

Aug 11, 2011
Pipeline next to water

The Canadian company wants to build a 1,702-mile pipeline that will pass through Nebraska's Ogallala aquifer as it transports heavy crude oil from tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline say it will improve U.S. energy security and decrease reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Opponents say that pipelines transporting oil sands crude raise the risk of spills and damage to aquifers and waterways, while extracting and processing the thick oil increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that on a "well-to-tank" basis the heavy crude extracted is 82 percent more carbon intensive than conventional oil. That estimate sits in a middle ground between widely varying claims offered by industry and environmentalists.
Since the pipeline will cross an international border, TransCanada must get a presidential permit from the State Department before it can build and operate the line. In July 2010, the EPA gave the State Department's first (EIS) of the project the lowest possible grade of "inadequate," creating an inter-agency tussle that has delayed the permit decision. Although a second draft EIS did better, the EPA said more analysis was still needed to fully evaluate the environmental risks. The State Department's final environmental review of Keystone XL is expected this month.

The Ogallala aquifer has emerged as an important point in the debate. In June, two scientists from Nebraska called for a special study to determine how an oil spill would affect it, and Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska has asked the State Department to consider an alternate, more easterly route that would avoid it. Twenty scientists from top research institutions recently urging President Obama not to approve the pipeline because of environmental concerns.

Here's a primer on why people are worried.